Camden forum on driver's licenses for undocumented draws 300

A woman listens during an immigration seminar sponsored by Camden County at St. Joseph's Pro Cathedral in Camden on October 22, 2014. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

Eufracia Mora and her husband run a commercial and residential painting business, and often have to drive from two to three hours for a job. The parents of two small children ride the whole way unlicensed and on edge.

"I'm always nervous every time I get in the car," Mora said, "Every day I drive for work, or I drive the kids to school, I'm worried I'll see a police car."

Mora is undocumented and cannot legally obtain a driver's license. She joined nearly 300 people Wednesday night for a forum on immigration issues largely focused on whether driver's licenses for undocumented residents will be allowed in New Jersey.

The event, organized by Camden County and held at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in heavily Hispanic East Camden, came out of an increased demand on the city's Office of Hispanic Affairs.

"We were hearing real problems, and lots of them, and we decided we needed to have a meeting to educate the public and bring legislators in to hear our side and to become advocates for our concerns," said Freeholder Carmen G. Rodriguez.

A panel of immigration lawyers answered questions, as did city, county, and state legislators.

The overwhelming topic was the risks associated with undocumented immigrants driving and the everyday struggles they experience because of the prohibition.

This month, Camden City Council became the first governing body in the state to pass a resolution in support of driving-privilege cards for New Jersey residents who cannot prove they are legal citizens.

The resolution is not legally binding, but two bills are pending in the Senate and the Assembly. The proposals would require the Motor Vehicle Commission to issue driving-privilege cards to applicants who are New Jersey residents but cannot provide proof of their authorized presence in the United States.

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D., Union), who sponsored the Assembly bill, attended the session and called the immigration system "broken and outdated."

"We know there are a lot of people driving who are undocumented, who drive without insurance and without knowing the rules of the road. This puts everyone in danger," she said.

Antonio Medina, 38, of Pennsauken, learned to drive from a friend when he moved to New Jersey from Mexico.

Now it's his only way to get to his restaurant in Mount Laurel. "I need to drive not only for work, but to take my kids to doctor's appointments, or just to play in the park," he said.

Gov. Christie has said he does not favor giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. In December, Christie signed New Jersey's DREAM Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges and universities at instate tuition rates.

Anyone who can get a work card can obtain a driver's license in New Jersey, immigration lawyer Derek DeCosmo said. People with pending green-card applications can usually get a work card and, therefore, a driver's license while they are waiting, said DeCosmo, who answered questions on the panel Wednesday night.

But that leaves out a large portion of the population.

Some obtain car plates, registrations, and licenses in one of the 11 states where undocumented immigrants can get licenses. Others pay someone else to get them a car registered in another name.

DeCosmo dismissed the argument that giving licenses to undocumented immigrants rewards unlawful behavior. "People are going to drive anyway. We want to have licensed people driving. Don't we want to know who is here and living in the state of New Jersey?"

Sister Veronica Roche of St. Joseph's called City Council's resolution an important victory for the community. Even if the bill is doomed to be vetoed on Christie's desk, she said, she hopes it makes it there.

"People who have been working on this know it's a long ride, and some advocates are wondering whether it's wise to push this or not. I personally would like to see it go as far as it can, and if he doesn't sign it, he faces the consequences in terms of Latino voters."

She said a woman who took English as a Second Language classes last year through the church had to travel from Collingswood to Camden and wound up paying more than $40 a week in cabs for the class, which cost only $25. She did not return this year.

"They drive in fear. And rightly so," Sister Veronica said. "Most deportation starts with some kind of traffic violation where people are picked up and handed over."

Camden County Metro Police Chief Scott Thomson said that if a person receives a summons for being an unlicensed driver, any inquiry into the person's immigration status is prohibited. He said an arrest would not be warranted either.

Councilman Luis Lopez, who helped organize the seminar, said most problems occur when Camden residents leave the city.

"Police here are aware of what's happening. Usually undocumented people get more problems when they go out of our boundaries here," he said.

Another topic of the evening was how undocumented people can prepare if President Obama expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law to include adults. Currently the law offers protections from deportation to individuals who immigrated to the country as children.

Lopez encouraged the large audience to stay hopeful and said that soon enough, the Latino vote will force change.

"They're not going anywhere. They're staying here, and their sons and daughters are U.S. citizens, and soon they will turn 18," he said. "And they will be the ones who make the big difference."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso